It’s officially the brief brief season of the pumpkin. It’s not that pumpkins don’t last very long, (quite the opposite, really), it’s just that we usually don’t think of them much except for one week or so at the end of Halloween.
That said, the pumpkin enjoys a unique place in our culture. Nobody puts out radish rosettes on their front porch to celebrate Easter. Or green bean wreathes on their door for the Fourth of July. The pumpkin is one of the only vegetables that is grown in greater quantities for decoration than consumption.
The history of using pumpkins – and other vegetables – as celebratory lanterns goes far back to ancient Ireland. Legend has it that an Irishman named Jack was having a drink with the devil, and, being too cheap to pay for the drinks himself, conned the devil to turn himself into a coin. The coin went into Jack’s pocket next to a silver cross, which kept the devil from returning to his original form. When Jack finally freed him, he again conned the devil into climbing a tall tree to pick some fruit. (Apparently the devil is more gullible than we’ve been led to believe.) This time Jack carved a cross in the tree trunk so that the devil could not descend.
And then Jack died. Bad move.
God wasn’t happy with Jack’s close companionship with the devil, and the devil wasn’t thrilled by being Jack’s two-time patsy. So, denied entrance to both heaven and hell, Jack is forced to wander around earth with only a burning ember straight from hell to light his way. Embers are hot – especially ones from hell – so Jack carved a lantern out of a turnip in which to place the burning coal.
And thus a tradition was born. The English still use oversized beets for their Jack-O-Lanterns, but immigrants to America soon migrated to the pumpkin. Most likely this was due to its ready availability, having been cultivated by Native Americans for centuries. It’s unclear where and when the practice of carving scary faces to make the lanterns began.
The Beekmans, who probably did not know of Halloween, more likely celebrated the harvest with a Fall Festival. And it’s doubtful they carved vegetable lanterns – the winter is too long to waste a perfectly good squash. But we’re feeling lucky with our larder, so we’ll take the risk of carving one.
We’ll make ours a more traditional lantern than the Jack-O-Lantern. Since a Jack-O-Lantern is at heart a light source, years ago we developed a carving tradition that made best use of light and shadows. By carving small, simple, perfect circles in our pumpkin, we get a light show in a dark corner that is truly spooky. Remember, ghosts are rumored to show up as “orbs of light” on film. We create a whole army of them.
To create out lantern, first we lop off the bottom of the pumpkin.
Hollowing from the bottom keeps the top intact and prettier. Then we scoop out the “guts” and seeds the old fashioned way – with our hands, occasionally using a large spoon to scrape any stubborn strings from the sides. (Save the seeds. We’ll use them later this week for a pumpkin risotto.)
We’ve occasionally seen our “polka dot” style taught in magazines and TV shows, but we have a secret tip most of them don’t use. Most of them recommend using a drill to create the circles. We tried that once. What a mess of whirling, flying, pumpkin shavings.
To created the holes, instead of a drill we use this apple corer. Quick. Easy. Perfect circles with no gloppy mess:
We’re sure to position plenty of holes around the top of the pumpkin near the stem end so that the candle heat has a place to escape.
Once finished carving holes, we stand our candle on the bottom “lid” and place the pumpkin over it. We recommend a nice corner perch so that the circles of light can dance and play over the walls and ceiling.
We’re not likely to make any deals with the devil any time soon. But if we do, at least we’ll have a stylish lantern to roam through your backyard.
Please post your pumpkin (or turnip) lanterns in the comment section below. We’d love to share the scare.